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 A good textbook of marine biology

Editor's Introduction -- All in all, An Introduction to the Biology of Marine Life is a commendable text. The taxonomic-overview chapter is poor, but the bulk of the book -- especially the material dealing with marine ecology and the effects of human activities on marine ecosystems -- is admirable. In a high-school setting, An Introduction to the Biology of Marine Life can serve as the textbook for an honors course or an advanced-placement course.
from The Textbook Letter, September-October 1992

Reviewing a science book for high-school honors courses

An Introduction to the Biology of Marine Life
1992. 449 pages. ISBN: 0-697-05143-9.
Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 2460 Kerper Boulevard, Dubuque, Iowa 52004.

A Sound Survey of Life
in Marine Ecosystems

Gary C. Williams

Wm. C. Brown's An Introduction to the Biology of Marine Life is similar, in many ways, to Mosby's Marine Biology, the book that I reviewed in the March-April issue of The Textbook Letter. Each book is well written, competently researched, and comprehensive in its coverage of organismal biology, ecology, and the effects of human activities on marine environments. Each shows considerable variation in the quality of the illustrations that augment its text. Each has a good glossary and provides good reference materials.

More to the point, each book has its own strengths and weaknesses, and neither really outshines the other in overall quality or in its suitability for use in a high-school honors course or an advanced-placement course. I would recommend either one to the teacher of such a course, for both are good books. With a few exceptions, the differences between the two have more to do with style than with content, and a teacher can pick the one that more closely fits the course outline that the teacher has developed.

The text of Brown's book is well organized and provides an admirable survey of marine biology from an ecological perspective. The opening chapter describes the ocean as a physical setting, then chapter 2 introduces some important biological concepts. The topics here include the adaptive value of sex, the nature of trophic relationships, and the biotic aspects of marine ecosystems. Chapters 3 and 4 survey some prominent groups of marine organisms, leading to a discussion (in chapter 5) of primary productivity. This discussion includes a good section about the periodic ocean-warming event known as El Niño. Chapters 6 through 9 deal with specific marine habitats, giving attention to estuarine, benthic, intertidal and coral-reef communities. Chapters 10 through 12 look, in some detail, at zooplankton, fishes and the marine mammals. Finally, chapters 13 and 14 give lucid accounts of some human impacts on the bounty of the sea -- a bounty that once seemed limitless.

These last two chapters seem particularly timely and valuable. In our overpopulated world, the overexploitation of marine resources can create, and already has created, disasters. This is illustrated nicely in chapter 13 ("Fisheries") by an account of how the Peruvian anchoveta fishery collapsed, in the 1970s, under the effects of protracted, unrestrained overfishing. The chapter also tells about the "strip mining of the sea" -- commercial "fishing" with gigantic, monofilament drift-nets that indiscriminately trap and kill marine animals of all kinds, even birds and mammals.

Chapter 14 ("Ocean Pollution") furnishes more information about what we are doing to marine habitats and to the things that live in them. It describes some effects of sewage discharges, industrial-chemical discharges, oil spills, and the dumping of plastic debris, and it concludes with an especially erudite section titled "Developing a Sense of Stewardship." Here we see how insensitive and contradictory our practices have become: Humans try to take edible resources from the oceans in greater and greater amounts while simultaneously fouling the very systems that bring those resources forth.

As a specialist in the biology of coral reefs, I must comment that the coral-reef chapter in An Introduction to the Biology of Marine Life is a fine example of science writing. It provides up-to-date information on the zoology of reef-forming corals, the processes by which reefs come into being, the influence of plate tectonics on reefs, the biotic and geomorphological zonation of reefs, the adaptive value of coloration in coral-reef fishes, and some of the symbiotic relationships in which reef fishes participate. The drawback to this otherwise first-rate chapter is that it fails to define and differentiate the four major kinds of corals (the hydrocorals, black corals, octocorals and hard corals) and fails to make clear that only the hard corals build reefs. (The other corals may inhabit reefs but are not directly involved in forming them.) The text about the biology and morphology of "corals" applies only to the hard corals, but the reader may well imagine, wrongly, that it applies to corals in general.

When the book is viewed as a whole, its weak link seems to be chapter 3, "An Overview of Marine Animals." A student who is struggling to get a handle on the bewildering diversity of marine animals needs a text that defines the various groups concisely and differentiates them clearly. In this book, however, many animal phyla are described in a very superficial manner. Here is one respect in which this book differs substantively from the volume offered by Mosby. In the Mosby book, each phylum is clearly defined in two or three sentences, set in boldface type.

Good Design

One of the strengths of An Introduction to the Biology of Marine Life lies in its design. The layout is well done, reflecting considerable care and thought -- as we might expect in a book that is now in its fifth edition and presumably has undergone gradual improvement.

The color photographs generally are good and are reproduced at sizes sufficient to preserve detail. (See, for example, figure 10.4, showing three large, gelatinous, planktonic animals.) Unfortunately, however, there are some exceptions to this rule. Figure 3.19, a poor photograph of sipunculid worms, tells us very little about the organisms in question -- a good, well labeled drawing would have been more informative. In figure 8.20 (showing green anemones) and figure 8.19a (showing brown algae) the contrast is so low that virtually no information is conveyed. In figure 8.14 (showing aggregate anemones), figure 8.16 (showing the brown alga Fucus) and figure 8.19b (showing an intertidal scene), parts of each photograph are obviously out of focus.

Another irritating feature of the artwork is that some drawings lack labels. Figure 3.9, for example, comprises two fine drawings of nematocysts -- but nothing is labeled, so the value of the figure is markedly impaired. Figure 7.11 shows the planktonic larvae of a polychaete, a sea urchin, a crab and a snail, but with no labeling to tell the important names (such as pluteus, zoea and veliger) by which planktonic larvae are known.

Even with these failings -- which are mostly minor and can be rectified easily when the book goes into yet another edition -- An Introduction to the Biology of Marine Life is a solid text. It can furnish the advanced student with a lot of knowledge, soundly presented, about marine organisms, the marine environment, and human influence on both.

A Book That Starts Poorly
but Gets Better and Better

William J. Bennetta

Like Mosby's Marine Biology, which I reviewed in these pages six months ago, Brown's An Introduction to the Biology of Marine Life is a college text that also is sold for use in marine-biology courses offered by high schools. Like Mosby's book, it is generally current, factually solid, and appropriate for bright high-school students who already have had courses in geography and general biology. The two books are comparable in scope and organization, but their viewpoints are somewhat different. Mosby's book puts a bit more emphasis on organismal biology and the phenomenon of adaptation. Brown's gives more attention to ecology and the dynamics of marine ecosystems.

An Introduction to the Biology of Marine Life starts poorly but then gets better and better.

Chapter 1, "The Ocean as Habitat," begins with a historical summary that gives proper weight to plate tectonics, making clear that ocean basins are continuously changing. Then it tries, with less success, to outline some of the oceans' physical and chemical features that have biological importance. Some of the passages here, such as those dealing with wave dynamics or with certain properties of seawater, are so abbreviated that they appear to have little value.

Chapter 2 has the title "Some Ecological and Biological Concepts," an odd phrase that signals the book's emphasis on ecology but also suggests, falsely, that ecology may exist by itself, separate from biology. The title aside, the chapter is unacceptably superficial and recalls the festivals of "mentioning" that we often see in middle-school books. It introduces far too many terms, with too little explanation, too little exemplification, too little regard for helping students to gain a real grasp of ideas.

Chapter 3, "An Overview of Marine Animals," is similarly unacceptable, even as an overview. Many taxonomic groups are mentioned, few are treated adequately, and some are not even described competently. The entire presentation looks hasty and seems not to be informed by a real understanding and appreciation of the diversity of animal life in the oceans. Like the two that precede it, this chapter is a candidate for rewriting.

With chapter 4, "Marine Primary Producers," things improve dramatically, and we encounter some of the ecological ideas that will pervade and unify the remainder of the text. The writing becomes smoother, more confident and quite readable, and the selection of material is knowledgeable and skillful.

Those features -- unifying ideas, good writing, and skillful choice of material -- generally persist through the rest of the book's fourteen chapters, which also display great accuracy. As a result, these chapters can be fine sources of information for any middle-school teacher who gives a life-science course, or any high-school teacher who gives a general-biology course.

Chapters 10 through 12 deal specifically with animals, the organisms in which I am particularly interested. Chapter 10, "Zooplankton," is good work, but I am disappointed by its concentrating so heavily on the holoplankton (organisms that are planktonic throughout their lives). The existence of meroplankton (organisms that are planktonic only while they are larvae) is acknowledged but not developed. Some consideration of the meroplankton would have created opportunities to connect this chapter with, say, chapter 6 ("Estuaries") or chapter 11 ("The Nekton").

Chapter 11 focuses strongly on fishes. It is little short of superb, and reading it has been a pleasure. (The pleasure was all the greater, I suspect, because I so often have had to read the claptrap that passes for ichthyology in phony life-science texts. See, for example, my review of Prentice Hall Life Science in The Textbook Letter, March-April 1991.) Let me extend special praise to the sections on buoyancy-control, on migration, and on modes of reproduction.

Chapter 12 ("Marine Tetrapods") represents one of the few cases in which the choice of material is seriously wrong. Only four pages of text are given to birds and reptiles -- the rest of the chapter (32 pages) is an excellent treatment of marine mammals. Yet as the text itself declares, there is a greater diversity of marine birds than of mammals, and the birds' "impact on marine communities can be considerable." I hope that this chapter will be revised, to give the marine birds the attention that they deserve, when the next edition is being written.

The book's emphasis on ecology culminates in its last two chapters: Chapter 13 deals with fisheries, chapter 14 with marine pollution. I have given special attention to the chapter on fisheries, which is outstanding. It traces some recent history of commercial fishing on the high seas, links information about fisheries to information about the growth of the human population, and even offers a page about drift-nets -- those monstrously destructive devices, sometimes called "curtains of death," that are favored by fishing fleets from Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. Most importantly, perhaps, this chapter examines the overexploitation and destruction of fisheries, and it explains such destruction by invoking "the tragedy of the commons." [See "Tragedy Made Simple," in this issue.] That explanatory principle is something that all students, not just those in marine-biology classes, must understand.

Though An Introduction to the Biology of Marine Life has its flaws, it is (all in all) a good and useful book. I recommend it.


Gary C. Williams is a marine biologist and a department chairman at the California Academy of Sciences, in San Francisco. His research program includes the systematics and biogeography of marine coelenterates and mollusks, as well as aspects of coral-reef biology. His current field work is focused on coral reefs of the western Pacific.

William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes often about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.

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